SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES
CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS (1982)
Support Your Local Veterans!
By Nick Cato
Besides an overabundance of slasher films, the early 80s was also a hotbed of DAWN OF THE DEAD and ZOMBIE rip-offs, and if you lived in the right places, these (mainly) euro-schlock offerings seemed to be released every week.
Although zombie-mania is mainstream today, in 1982 it was still cool to be a zombie geek. And upon seeing the above ad in my local newspaper for something called CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS, my geekdom hit an all-time high. Here was a film I hadn’t read a thing about in any horror magazine or fanzine, and it starred John Saxon, an actor I had been a fan of since his stint as a robot opposite Lee Majors on the TV show THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN (1974-76 episodes).
Thankfully one of my buddies’ older brothers smuggled us into the Fox Twin Theatre, another defunct twin here on Staten Island that’s now the site of a multiplex. For a Saturday afternoon, CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS was packed…but by the halfway point the theater had all but emptied. The fools should have stuck out the slow middle…
I should point out—before I go any further—that I eventually discovered this film was a HEAVILY edited version of a 1980 Italian production released in Europe as CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, and eventually released on VHS in America, still edited, as INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS (got all that?). As far as I know, this is the first Italian cannibal film to be shot almost entirely in Atlanta. I forced myself to watch (okay—SCAN) through Image Entertainment’s uncut DVD version (under the title CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE) back around 2002, and am happy to report that the “uncut” version didn’t enhance or change my opinion of the film. In fact, anyone seeking a gory cannibal/zombie outing can do themselves a favor and look elsewhere.
BUT: the film still has its moments.
Saxon locates a couple of P.O.W.’s in Vietnam. To survive, the men resorted to cannibalism, and as Saxon tries to help one soldier out of a prisoner pit, he has a nice chunk taken out of his arm! The theater DID go nuts over this opening sequence, which quickly ended and brought us back to modern-day Atlanta. Giovanni Lombardo Radice (who would soon get a power drill through his head in Fulci’s THE GATES OF HELL (1983) ) plays one of Saxon’s ‘Nam buddies—and for some reason they’re both living in Atlanta. When Saxon refuses to go out with him for a drink (apparently he’s still haunted by being bitten in ‘Nam), Radice heads to a local movie theater where instead of focusing on the feature, he watches some pervert lick his girlfriend’s body. Radice has a flashback and decides to bite the poor girl’s neck, which causes the place to panic. He’s chased by a bunch of crazed theater patrons, and a sorry-looking biker gang, into a thrift shop, where he’s eventually apprehended and sent to the hospital for observation. DURING this fiasco, John Saxon is at home with a babysitter, who keeps giving him flashbacks every time she flirts by showing a little leg. Knowing his wife is being unfaithful, Saxon gives in and goes down on her without literally eating anything, temporarily sating his cannibalistic urges with some playful nibbling.
At this point in the film, it became clear CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS wasn’t a zombie film, and while it moves well up to this point, the mid-section becomes quite tedious. Patron after patron began to leave the theater, but my friends and I were confident something titled CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS simply HAD to have a pay off.
It does and it doesn’t.
The action slowly picks back up when Radice and the other rescued P.O.W. escape from a hospital along with a nurse they’ve bitten. They run into the aforementioned biker gang right outside the hospital and a mini-brawl breaks out. The trio goes on to infect unlucky citizens with their cannibal virus, and eventually meet up with their former captain, John Saxon.
The rest of the film turns into a violent action flick, complete with a nifty chase sequence through Atlanta’s sewers and a flamethrower battle at the finale. The gore scenes cut out of this theatrical release (provided by ZOMBIE (1979) and THE BEYOND (1981)-alumni Gianetto De Rossi), which I finally saw on the DVD, include a gruesome close-up of Radice’s stomach after he gets a hole blown in it, a doctor having his tongue bitten off, and some sloppy mechanic having his leg sliced up like cold cuts at a deli.
I have no idea if director Antonio Margheriti was trying to make some kind of non-subtle point regarding the returning Vietnam vet as being the “real” monster, or if he just set out to make some cash by combining APOCALYPSE NOW and DAWN OF THE DEAD (both 1979). What I came away with was a satisfying exploitation experience, despite the (then) lack of gore, which was made up for with uncomfortable sex scenes, plenty of action (despite the slow middle), and some of the worst left-over disco music ever to appear in a cannibal film (and THAT’S saying something). I’ve read that John Saxon has publicly denounced the film, and co-star Radice has said Saxon seemed “out there” while the film was being shot. Either way, CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS is must viewing for Saxon completists and lovers of so-bad-they’re-good grindhouse classics. All others, stick to RAMBO…
© Copyright 2011 by Nick Cato